Category Archives: Conflict

Mumbai attacks

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is blaming them on groups from neighbouring countries. I’m a bit cynical: it’s an easy claim to make and by shifting the focus abroad it’s a quick way of being seen to be making progress. There are, after all, a number of separatist and insurgent groups that have been active in the country for years.

One also has to wonder, if the groups are from other countries and the Indian government knows this within hours of the attacks, thereby implying intelligence on the attackers, why did it not take some preventative measures? Or was it genuinely taken by surprise? The attackers had military-grade explosives, which indicates access to substantial logistical support.

The standoff has some time to go, but the Times of India is doing a good job of keeping readers up to date.

Robot soldiers

It’s a maxim in journalism that when a headline is a question, the answer is usually no. And so you have to be concerned when you read “Can robots make ethical decisions in battle?”

That said, the scientist quoted knows his stuff.

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” said Ronald Arkin, a computer scientist at Georgia Tech, who is designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the U.S. Army. “That’s the case I make.”

His research has a very solid background:

In a report to the army last year, Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built to show no anger or recklessness, Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called “the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,”‘ which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.

Arkin’s report drew on a 2006 survey by the surgeon general of the army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior.

Troops who were stressed, angry, anxious or mourning lost colleagues or who had handled the dead were more likely to say they had mistreated civilian noncombatants, the survey said. (The survey can be read by searching for 1117mhatreport at

Of course, the problem is that just because a robot can, in theory, make less judgemental decisions does not necessarily mean these are better. The human element, where the individual brings his or her experience and intuition to bear on a situation, is lost. I would raise the concern that an automated defence system could open fire when there is no need to, simply because it is programmed to take certain actions and cannot ‘read’ the circumstances.

Atkins is fully aware of these challenges, which is good because it means there is some action being taken to address them. Ultimately, a higher use of technology, which could potentially lead to fewer human casualties, can only be a good thing.

Links o' the day, 16/10/08

I used to do a daily list of links, but that fell by the wayside for some reason. Consider this a restart.

Skippy on the menu as Australia seeks to fight global warming. (Bloomberg; for the record, kangaroo meat isn’t bad)

Suit against God tossed over lack of address. (AP/

Consumption of psychoactive drugs by Tiwanakuan mummies. (

Crate expectations: 12 shipping container housing ideas. (Treehugger)

What your home and workspace say about your politics. (Lifehacker)

The music alliance pact. (UnaRocks)

Nerd rage. (1,000 Tiny Things I Hate)

Forget subprime mortgages, it was bin Laden. (The National)

Choir mistress pays hospital parking fine in 3,500 pennies. (The Daily Telegraph)

Ireland, Finland, it's all the same

At least according to this Xinhua headline: Kenya’s Nobel laureate lauds ex-Ireland leader. The Nobel peace prize had been awarded to the former president of Finland for his efforts from Europe to the Middle East to Asia.

But hey, what’s the difference between nations? I speak with the experience of a man who was once asked, during the immigration procedure, if he should be listed as coming from Iceland. “Iceland is same as Ireland, yes?”

Resource wars

The US military’s latest strategy document throws in the usual ideological threats — and apparently the “war on terror” now has an acronym, GWOT — but has a very keen on eye on future practicalities: “We face a potential return to traditional security threats posed by emerging near-peers as we compete globally for depleting natural resources and overseas markets.”

An interesting phrase, “near peers”. I’m not sure if this is a subtle slight at Russian and Chinese efforts to restablish/establish themselves as world powers, or a tacit acceptance that US power faces being equalled in the medium term.

Tom Clonan of The Irish Times notes:

This thinly-veiled reference to Russia and China will, perhaps, come as little surprise given recent events in Ossetia and Abkhazia. The explicit reference in this context to future resource wars, however, will probably raise eyebrows among the international diplomatic community, who prefer to couch such conflicts as human rights-based or rooted in notions around freedom and democracy.

The document, however, contains no such lofty pretences. It goes on to list as a pre-eminent threat to the security of the US and its allies “population growth – especially in less-developed countries – [which] will expose a resulting ‘youth bulge’.”

A young, growing population would mean a corresponding growth in resource consumption. It’s valid for a military to consider these sorts of threats — its duty is to protect the nation and its citizens, and so it should be prepared for as many eventualities as possible, and however unpalatable it may seem to the observer. But this is an outline of what strategies and technologies will be needed in the future, rather than a plan of campaign.

That food and water could lead to conflict should not be unexpected. The rocketing price of rice, for instance, has prompted several Gulf states to look into buying farmland in producer countries as a means of safeguarding supplies. If we hear a country saying “Oh, that looks like a nice spot to invade and grow corn”, then we need to worry. But don’t think it hasn’t been said privately.

According to Clonan, the document also looks at hi-tech options for fight wars and conducting military exercises. The space-based perspective might sound like science fiction, but is unsurprising. Any military would want to use all the assets at its disposal — and orbit allows all sorts of perspectives and observation options.

It is also indicative of a drive to reduced US casualties. Mobile-operated drones and such have been mooted and occasionally deployed for some time, although with mixed results. However, the use of hardware over personnel is more PR friendly, as well as a possibility for reducing the used operating budget on pesky things such as food and water. We may not be in Terminator country just yet, but it would mark a major shift in military composition and operation.

If it comes to pass, of course,